By Dawn Van Osdell
Corinne Cannon, an expert on the effects of care on infant brain development, is more skilled in handling babies than most people. But back in 2009, awake in the dead of night with her inconsolable, colicky first child, Jack, she felt as helpless and alone as every other mother in that desperate situation. She woke up her husband, Jay, asleep in the next room of their Capital Hill home, and handed over the wailing infant to get some relief. “The physical reality of parenthood is brutal, and that’s when it’s going absolutely perfectly,” says Cannon, now also mom to two-year-old Callie. But what happens to the women who have no one to wake when they’ve had enough, she wondered. And what happens to fussy babies when their mothers have reached their breaking point?
As a result of all those late-night, stress-induced thoughts and feelings, for the last five years Cannon has presided over a cinderblock warehouse in an industrial park in Silver Spring, Maryland, that’s marked with a small sign that reads DC Diaper Bank. Despite the fact that Silver Spring is Cannon’s hometown, this is an unlikely workplace for a woman who graduated from London’s esteemed School of Economics with an advanced degree in cognitive anthropology. The entrance is crammed with donated packs of disposable diapers waiting to be sorted into piles beside ceiling-high stacks inside the 3,000 square foot space. Next to it, trucks pull up to the large dock, where volunteers load bundles of diapers that will be delivered all across the greater Washington area.
For a mom who studied and rallied to make a difference in the lives of moms less fortunate than herself, the place is unlikely for another reason. Says Cannon, “I was surprised to hear, again and again, that diapers are the thing that mothers most need, not food or formula.” This is because Safety Net programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), don’t cover the cost of diapers. And as any family knows, diapers are expensive. The estimated daily need for infants adds up to about $100 a month—more for families living in poor areas, who have no access to big box stores like Costco. That means that low-income families often have to make a choice between diapers and food. “There are families making do with one or two diapers a day, or worse yet, they are wiping out [disposable] diapers and reusing them,” says Cannon.
So, getting diapers into the hands of families that need them provides greatly reduced stress levels for both mother and child, and proper hygiene and care for the infant. The former, explains Cannon, is especially critical during a baby’s first three years of life, when his brain develops at its most rapid pace. “It's during this very short and very crucial timeframe when you literally build your brain,” she says. “We know that the brains of babies who experience prolonged periods of stress, and who have caregivers who are under stress, do not grow in the same way.”
Diapers also open the door to getting even greater aid to families, from health and legal services they may have been previously unwilling to accept. “When a social worker shows up at a house and says, ‘I have diapers and formula,’ doors open ten times faster” than if a social services provider shows up empty handed; in the latter case, the perception can be that she’s come to judge and assess, rather than to help, says Cannon.
Cannon spent years dealing with similar maternal and family issues when she worked in health communications, helping to spread the word about HIV/AIDS prevention and programs and creating curriculum around environmental health for children, for management and policy consulting firm ICF International. She admits that as a working mom with a rewarding career, she had no intention of starting a non-profit. But, “There was a such a need for a region-wide solution for getting bare necessities to those who need them the most,” she says, that she couldn’t ignore the fact that her knowledge and expertise in infant development and family care could help affect a significant change.
She started DC Diaper Bank on Jack’s first birthday, in 2010, without any outside funding. She was still working full-time at ICF, piling cases of diapers in her basement that had been donated by families who had leftovers, or through diaper drives; or that she’d purchased wholesale with donations that typically came in $25 to $50 increments. “It was, and remains, a shoestring affair,” Cannon says. In 2011, she secured a corporate donation commitment from Huggies and became a member of the National Diaper Bank Network, a non-profit organization that provides local diaper banks with hundreds of thousands of diapers, in addition to support, technical assistance, and connections to similar non-profits all over the country. She also partnered with Capital Area Food Bank, one of the largest distributors of food and aid in the DC area, which agreed to store the diapers and distribute them to social service organizations and food banks that already helped families in need. She started out distributing about 5,000 diapers a month and within two and a half years, that number rose to 50,000. In 2013, DC Diaper Bank moved to Silver Spring and Cannon quit her job to fully commit to the work, pro bono.
Today, the DC Diaper Bank space is more than a warehouse. It’s a welcoming community hub of do-gooding for families throughout the DC area and beyond. Families, mothers’ groups, scouting troops, meet regularly to bundle and sort diapers, organize and clean the space. Toddlers whizz down the aisles between the stacks on ride-along toys while their mothers volunteer. There’s a colorful play space, too, where kids can spread out with snacks and juice boxes, scribble on an easel, chase balls down the aisles of diapers, and maybe even lend a hand.
“Families are hungry to volunteer and to talk about issues like poverty and need, but it’s a hard conversation to start with a child and there’s nowhere to comfortably do it,” says Cannon. The Diaper Bank provides a forum for that conversation, and a gentle place where children can begin to understand the meaning of need. “Kids remember when they wore diapers, they see their siblings wearing them, and they can understand how all babies need them,” says Cannon. “They just get it.”
Last summer, the Diaper Bank added a baby pantry to their space, to collect other non-essential baby care items that are not covered by federal aid, like baby wipes and diaper rash cream, as well as formula and baby food. In a star-studded ceremony, Cannon was named a 2014 a L'Oreal Paris Woman of Worth and honored with $10,000 for her charity for her remarkable—and growing—legacy: To date, the DC Diaper Bank has distributed more than 1.5 million diapers and helped an estimated 2,600 families per month.
For more information about how you can help with the DC Diaper Bank or find a local diaper bank in your area, check out dcdiaperbank.org.
Photographs by Jeffrey Morris